Confidence men and women have been immortalized in The Signal’s headlines the past 100 years. But sometimes unreported are the daily misdemeanors: shoplifting, thefts from petty cash or the church basket — even the lowliest of lows, stealing someone’s newspaper.
When we were a village so long ago, a family living on the north end of Spruce Street walked the few blocks to the brand new American Theater. It was 1942. All through the newsreel, cartoons and previews of coming attractions, the mother was haunted. Did she leave the stove on?
At the start of the first feature, she excused herself to run home and check. She found three boys, ages 10, 11 and 13 in her home, filling a sack full of humble loot. The woman was stunned, as were the boys. The trio were the Santa Clarita’s best and brightest, popular honor students. They used their false faces and perfect manners to gain confidence to learn when people would be away. Over a three-year period, the boys pulled off 131 burglaries. Their names were never released, but everyone knew who they were. This was in the early days of World War II, in the 1940s. Grown men cried. It was as if the very core of our being had been violated.
Schindler The Swindler
Perhaps the SCV’s most successful con artist was Richard Schindler, a man who charmed even The Mighty Signal’s August business section.
The former Washington state truck driver turned financial consultant had an office in Plaza Posada, on Lyons. From that humble space, starting in the late 1970s, Schindler concocted dozens of scams. The Signal even helped with free publicity, running a front-page feature on Schindler’s make-believe gold mine in Nevada, with, according to us: “net ore reserves in the first 100 feet of $20 billion.”
That was in 1976, when $20 billion actually bought something.
Within a five-year period, Schindler the Swindler would con approximately $12 million from more than 1,700 investors, mostly locals. He was finally arrested in 1979, for, of all things, failure to return a rental car in Florida. He was brought back to Santa Clarita and convicted, drawing a nine-year sentence and a $30,000 fine.
Math’s not my strong suit, but I’m calculating that minus the $30,000 slap on the wrist, Schindler got to keep $11,970,000.
Schindler served less than three years.
In an outraged editorial, The Signal noted that Michael Jernigan, who murdered a popular local teacher and shot a convenience store clerk, drew just six years.
Schindler’s wife would have preferred he stay in the pokey longer. Shortly after his early release, Schindler strangled the missus outside Palm Springs, then committed suicide via a shotgun.
Con man to millionaire
The absolute strangest flimflam operation The Mighty Signal ever covered began in 1935.
Milfred Yant, was not “A” former Kansas, Nevada and Utah organizer for the Ku Klux Klan, he was “THE” KKK leader. He ended up in Newhall in the mid-1930s and bought 120 acres of scrub oak-covered land in lower Placerita for just $50 an acre. He added a corrugated tin “clubhouse” and lured senior citizens from the Southland with bus rides, entertainment and lunches — all for free.
Already a few oil wells dotted the area and Yant convinced the geezers to buy into what he described as an ocean of oil beneath the surface. Yant started selling parcels as small as 1/1,000th of an acre for a measly few bucks.
A front man for Yant disguised himself as a Texas big cowboy hat-wearing representative of a major oil company. He’d make home visits to the tiny investors, apologizing and asking if he could buy back their souvenir oil rights — at triple the value. Suspicious, the seniors would end up buying more stock, sometimes investing life savings. Yant sold hundreds of leases with price tags based on $2,000 an acre — an unheard-of high price during the Great Depression. It didn’t matter how many he sold, because he sold more than 100% of the land he owned.
On the “worthless” paper.
Eventually, Yant was arrested and served two years in San Quentin for fraud. He was released and then later arrested again for defrauding an elderly widow of her life’s savings. He ended up serving 13 years for both crimes.
Yant went straight for a while and opened an appliance store in Hollister.
The straight life wasn’t for Yant. Still owning property in Placerita, in 1949, he conned a local rancher into investing $53,000 to develop oil.
Learning a lesson, Yant drilled a couple of wells, just to make the operation seem legit.
Something went wonderfully wrong.
Yant hit oil. Millions and millions and millions of barrels of oil, so much oil, it drastically altered world petroleum prices for three years. Within 45 days of that “accidental” gusher, wildcatters had thrown up 60 derricks with 1,000 men working on them. Soon, the wells nearly tripled to 150 and the oil market was glutted.
The fields were called Confusion Hill, because of the mass of men and machinery working in a small space. “It was like 60 straws in a Coke bottle,” one oil worker recalled.
By 1951, the boom busted. Only a trickle of oil was pumped from the Earth. As quickly as the oil men had invaded, they departed.
So did con man turned legitimate oil millionaire Milfred Yant.
You can’t trust anybody
Usually, cons are just below the surface. Subterfuge is scam’s natural soil. But on Oct. 24, 1945, Acton’s postmaster, Clarence Rush, left the ultimate “I’ll Fix Your Wagon” message to his alleged best friend, Sam Schoor.
Schoor was the owner of the historic Acton Hotel that had catered to movie stars and presidents. He had just returned from three years fighting in World War II. He had given all his money and the hotel to run in his absence to Rush, who was one of Acton’s most respected citizens. He had even given the postal worker $1,000 to dig a well on the hotel property and found out there was a new well all right, but it was smack dab on Rush’s property. The Army captain demanded his money back. Rush refused and threatened Schoor, in writing: “Pay me $720 or I’ll torch the place.”
The Signal covered how Rush was arrested for grand theft, larceny, and, of course, arson. Rush burned the hotel where Teddy Roosevelt slept to the ground.
Chester and lower education
Back in 1970, the William S. Hart Union High School District hired educational consultant Chester Furgeson to advise on union/teacher issues. Furgeson was simultaneously busy consulting for the Torrance School District, where he took his job so seriously he was cutting enormous checks to himself.
And hiring hit men to off Torrance personnel.
At the time, Dave “Two-Gun” Baker had just taken over as superintendent of a rather shaky Hart District. (Dave corrected me years ago that he should be referred to as “One-Gun” because he carried just a single .45 revolver, but “One-Gun” Dave just isn’t as romantic as “Two-Gun” Dave.) Baker had inherited the shady Furgeson from the previous administration and fired Furgeson after their first meeting, on the spot, when Chester announced that he (Chester) “…would be running the Hart District from now on.”
Of course, at the time, Dave (who was not called “Two-Gun” or even “One-Gun” yet), didn’t know that at his other consulting job in Torrance, Clarence sort-of/kind-of hired a hitman to murder the Torrance superintendent. Clarence paid an assassin $10,000 (with Torrance district money!) to off the administrator. This is just me, but I know I’d be insulted. The Signal reported that Chester paid the same hit man a measly $5,000 to kill Superintendent Baker. That’s when Dave started packing heat.
“I was a little disappointed that my bounty was $5,000 cheaper,” said Baker, able to joke about it years later.
It wasn’t so funny while Furgeson was on the loose. Baker found five bullet holes in his office window and someone tried to run him off the road. He had four around-the-clock deputies (one for him, three for his family) living with him and had his car checked several times daily for bombs.
Local officers arrested an assassin at the old Tip’s restaurant, carrying a picture of Baker. Furgeson was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport. This is editorializing in a history article, but I have to ask:
“Where the HELL do we get these judges?” Because Fergie was immediately freed on $100,000 bond. He jumped bail and was found a week later, dead of asphyxiation in a Fresno motel. To this date, we don’t know if it was a murder or suicide. If someone killed Chester Furgeson, who was it and why?
On the bright side, Fergie hanged himself after an epic fast food meal.
You may already be a Wiener
The Signal covered just about every aspect of journalism, from the society page to the crime report. Kathy and Harold Wiener had started Country Oaks Escrow in Valencia in 1981 and built it up to a multimillion-dollar business a decade later. They were darlings of the SCV social set, lavishly donating to local charities. They ended up making the record books for being the largest escrow fraud perps in California history, bilking nearly $3 million from customers. They fled the SCV for Utah, leaving behind nearly 2,000 real estate deals in limbo and a paper trail of spending lavishly on personal parties, gifts and a grand lifestyle. Talk about chutzpah, the Wieners blamed the transgressions on Harold’s heart medication and followed up with four fat lawsuits on pharmaceutical companies.
The Wieners caused a lot of suffering. They suffered themselves. Harold had a heart transplant earlier. Both pleading no contest, Harold drew four years in prison, Kathy, two. Harold’s sentencing was delayed. The guy had lost a toe to gout and was recovering.
The sad thing?
There’s always some new, charming prince and princess of SCV society who will fool the rubes.
In the 1990s, Lisa and Dan Boaz were the delight of the Santa Clarita rubber-chicken crowd. They had started what was allegedly a multimillion-dollar delivery service, Vital Express. The Signal giddily announced how the Boazes were donating $2 million to College of the Canyons in exchange for the campus naming the new performing arts center after them. Small problem?
The former Newsmakers of the Week ended up being $1,988,000 shy of their promise.
Soon, their empire crumbled. They left behind their Sand Canyon estate and, later, this newspaper unearthed they were in North Carolina, involved in a similar scam outside Charlotte.
So many con men, so little time
In 1986, The Signal tattled on Janie Stevens. She bilked an old lady in Canyon Country out of $1,000. The alleged fortune teller told the woman she was going to die, but for the “bonus reading,” Janie would share how the panicked elder could add years to her life.
Same year, a 1986 undercover sting operation revealed our congresswoman, Bobbi Fielder, offered $100,000 to state Sen. Ed Davis if he’d just drop out of the primary. Same day as the charges were brought, Fielder announced her engagement — to her fellow indictee and aide, Paul Clarke. Despite a wagon full of incriminating evidence, Judge Bob Altman dropped all charges. Fielder just died in Northridge, March 9 of this year.
On April 30, 1970, Newhall Ford closed its doors. Owner Al Colia disappeared with all the funds. Newhall Ford would open again as Magic Ford. Owner and gambler Norm Gray would disappear after liberating hundreds of thousands from the cash register and owing Las Vegas casino owners a fortune. Gray had once won $1 million with a Santa Anita Pick 6 ticket.
In 1980, Bill Mahoney and Doris Rendahl were the financial officers for Canyon Country’s First Southern Baptist Church. Somehow, $40,000 from the church’s poor box wound up in Bill’s checking account. They served time for grand theft.
Back in February 1936, The Mighty Signal noted how a handsome stranger landed his plane on the Phil Quinn ranch. The pilot gave Quinn some cash and a pistol to guard his plane in exchange for borrowing Quinn’s car to grab something to eat. Turns out the sweet-talking flyer had just robbed a bank and made his getaway in a stolen plane. The guy never returned Quinn’s car.
It’s Saturday, May 4, 2019. Within minutes, someone in the SCV will be taking something that doesn’t belong to them. Within days, a con man will be busted in a larger scam.
We’ll all shake our heads, go “tsk-tsk,” act surprised and maybe write an editorial, disapproving.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 19 in our History of The Mighty Signal.